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Recently, my grandma-in-law received a load of massive heads of cabbage. When I say massive, I mean bigger than my head! Out of ideas on how to use this bounty, she gave them to me. My first thought—sauerkraut!
Sauerkraut is probably one of the best known fermented vegetables, and making it is easier than ever. You can use mason jars or fermenting crocks, a little salt and water, some spices if desired, and shredded cabbage. With very little equipment needed, the results are a delicious, slightly crunchy, slightly sour delight with billions of probiotics to boot!
How is Sauerkraut Fermented?
Sauerkraut is made through a fermenting process called lacto-fermentation. Basically, raw cabbage leaves are covered in tiny microbes, and one of those microbes is Lactobacillus bacteria (the same found in yogurts and other sources of probiotics). During the fermenting process, while the cabbage leaves are submerged under the brine (salt water), an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment is formed. This environment inhibits the growth of mold and harmful bacteria and creates the perfect home for the Lactobacillus to begin breaking down the cabbage.
The sugars in the cabbage leaves are broken down into lactic acid, acting as a preservative for your sauerkraut. This process of breaking down the leaves of the cabbage aides in digestion while increasing the nutritional value through fermentation (releasing B vitamins and vitamin C stored in the cabbage leaves). Sauerkraut is also rich in lutein and zeaxanthin antioxidants, which have been shown to be beneficial to eye health. And, because the lactic acid works as a preservative, your sauerkraut can be stored in the refrigerator for months!
What’s the Difference Between Store-Bought and Homemade Sauerkraut?
Due to pasteurization of most store-bought brands of sauerkraut, they lack the beneficial probiotics present in homemade or unpasteurized brands. Unpasteurized brands, like Bubbies, do contain the beneficial bacteria but can be pricey. It will save you a lot of money on probiotics in the long run to make your own.
The Sauerkraut Method
Depending on how much sauerkraut you hope to make and whether you are just dabbling in fermentation or committing to it, there are two options I recommend: The Mason Jar or The Fermenting Crock methods.
The Mason Jar
This is the most basic way to ferment your sauerkraut and great for beginners. You can use any size glass jar the you prefer, just making sure the cabbage is fully submerged in the brine. I recommend using glass weights to keep the cabbage from floating (which can lead to mold) or using a smaller glass jar filled with rocks or water on top of the cabbage leaves. With this method, you need to create an anaerobic environment but also allow for pressure to release from the jar. Do not screw the lid on tightly, otherwise your jar can explode from pressure. Instead, use the top half of a cut balloon to cover the jar lid or use a fermentation lid. The fermentation lids work a little better than the balloon and are a more environmentally friendly option (and can be used for other ferments like pickles).
The Fermenting Crock
Using a stoneware fermenting crock is the more traditional way of making sauerkraut and is my absolute favorite item in my kitchen. It costs less than purchasing the glass weights, fermenting lids, and everything else you need for the mason jar method, and it allows me to make a larger batch of sauerkraut each time. The fermenting crock seals the lid through a channel of brine water and makes the whole process so much easier.
If you are just starting, you may want to try the mason jar method first, and then, if you like it and want to make sauerkraut (and other ferments) regularly, move on to the fermenting crock.
Tips for the Best Sauerkraut
- A clean environment. Be sure your jars, lids, weights, and hands are thoroughly washed in warm, soapy water, and thoroughly rinsed so there is not soap residue. This is to make sure no unwanted bacteria are introduced that may compete with the lacto-bacteria essential for fermentation. Also, it is a good idea to keep your ingredients and jars out of the path of any air vents that may blow mold spores or dust into the recipe.
- Use fresh cabbage. For a nice, crisp finish, you want a nice, crisp start. Use the freshest cabbage available to you. Rinse your cabbage to get rid of dirt and debris.
- Salt it up. Salt is essential in creating the brine water that acts as a preservative and improves the overall shelf life, flavor, and texture. The amount of salt can be adjusted depending on your personal preference, but keep it between 1-3 Tbsp. per quart of water. I tend to split the difference and do 2 Tbsp. of salt per quart of water, but some may like less.
- Create an anaerobic environment. This is absolutely essential for safe sauerkraut making. Be sure the cabbage is completely submerged (by at least 1 inch) under the brine in order to prevent mold from ruining your batch. The lacto-bacteria need this aerobic environment to proliferate.
- Be Patient. The key to a successful fermentation is time. Depending on the ambient temperature, it can take anywhere between 3 days to a few weeks to ferment your sauerkraut. This time is based on taste as well. If the temperature where you are fermenting (such as your kitchen or basement) is lower, it will take longer for the fermentation process. Likewise, if the temperature is above 70 degrees, it won’t take as long. My home is right around 70 degrees, and I tend to let my batch of sauerkraut ferment for a week before tasting it. If I like the taste, I move it to the refrigerator. If I want a stronger flavor, I check it every 3 days after the first week until I’m satisfied before moving it.
Want More Nutritional Breakdown?
Here is the nutritional breakdown for average sauerkraut (75g) from the data source: NCCDB
*Please note this is for average sauerkraut, which may have different nutritional values than homemade due to different types of salts used, caraway seeds and the fermentation process.
|B1 (Thiamine)||0.02 mg||1.1%||Calcium||22.50 mg||2.3%|
|B2 (Riboflavin)||0.02 mg||1.0%||Copper||0.07 mg||3.6%|
|B3 (Niacin)||0.11 mg||0.5%||Iron||1.10 mg||6.1%|
|B5 (Pantothenic Acid)||0.07 mg||0.7%||Magnesium||9.75 mg||2.4%|
|B6 (Pyridoxine)||0.10 mg||4.9%||Phosphorus||15.00 mg||1.5%|
|Choline||7.80 mg||1.4%||Potassium||127.50 mg||3.6%|
|Folate||18.00 µg||4.5%||Selenium||0.45 µg||0.6%|
|Vitamin A||13.50 IU||0.3%||Sodium||495.75 mg||20.7%|
|– Alpha-carotene||3.75 µg||Zinc||0.14 mg||1.0%|
|Retinol Acvtivity Equivalent||0.66 µg|
|Vitamin C||11.03 mg||0.5%|
|Vitamin E||0.11 mg||0.5%|
|Vitamin K||9.75 µg||12.2%|